Get Back in Balance with Hellerwork

Structural Issues Can Be at the Root of Imbalance and Back Pain

By Anita Boser

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2006.

If you’re like most people, you are looking for ways to bring more balance into your life. When we think about creating a balanced life, we might start by cutting down on work, enjoying more pleasurable activities, and spending quality time with family and friends. These are all wonderful things, but they may be ignoring the obvious if your body is struggling to find its own balance, too.

Structural problems such as slouching, paunchiness, round shoulders, and flat feet are all symptoms of an unbalanced body. One of the most common symptoms of a structural imbalance is back pain. According to experts, 40 percent of all Americans will at some point in their lives suffer from back pain severe enough to prompt them to look for professional help.

Unfortunately, many conventional medical approaches don’t work on these problems because they focus on treating parts of the body, instead of treating the body as a whole. Based on the principles of alignment, gravity, balance, and fluidity, Hellerwork is a holistic bodywork modality that combines deep-tissue bodywork with movement education and body-mind connection dialogue.

Photos by Shawn Jezerinac, featuring Hellerwork practioner Joseph Hunton of Seattle.

The Fascia Connection

Hellerwork was introduced in 1978 by former Rolf practitioner Joseph Heller. Although Heller patterned his bodywork approach on the ten-session Rolfing program of deep manual pressure to relieve tension and blocks through realignment of the body, he felt restructuring alone wasn’t enough to achieve long-term, permanent change. He incorporated movement education and dialogue into the bodywork sessions, which encouraged clients to become aware of unhealthy and inefficient movement patterns and the attitudes and beliefs that may have contributed to their physical structural problems.

Hellerwork reflects a holistic approach to health, viewing the body as a complete and balanced entity rather than a sum of disparate parts. During the Hellerwork series’ eleven, ninety-minute sessions, tension and stress are released and the natural structural balance of the body is restored to a more aligned and relaxed state.
To fully understand the process, it helps to know about fascia, the connective tissue that Hellerwork primarily affects. Like a multilayer body stocking, fascia is a plastic-like tissue wrapping muscles and weaving in layers throughout the body. In its optimal condition, fascia is loose and moist and facilitates movement and flexibility.

However, due to physical trauma, chronic emotional or physical stress, or lack of movement, the fascia loses its flexibility and the layers begin to stick together. The fascia then becomes rigid, causing adhesions, restriction of movement, and ultimately pain. Also, because fascia is literally connective tissue, rigidity and adhesions in one part of the body can affect many other parts of the body as well.

A body that is already out of balance may react to the simple force of gravity as a stressor, making it even more imbalanced and rigid. Over a period of years, the body’s connective tissue will conform to the unbalanced position and may even temporarily feel more comfortable and natural than the original, properly-aligned position or posture. This damage will sometimes go on until the body can no longer function normally, finally showing up as disease and pain. This is why people often get shorter over time and how they get twisted and compressed into unnatural postures they cannot change. It also explains why many people move more slowly and with less comfort as they age.

Connecting the Pieces

As part of its holistic view of the body, Hellerwork incorporates several distinct elements into its healing paradigm.

Deep-Tissue Bodywork. Through gentle, yet deep pressure, a Hellerwork practitioner can manually stretch the fascia back to its original position to release the tension in the connective tissue and return your body to a more aligned position. This release helps you feel a normal, but uncommon state of health and well-being.

Movement Education. The movement education component of Hellerwork teaches you to become more aware of your body and movements. During sessions, clients spend part of the time standing, sitting, and walking. The practitioner coaches you on your movement patterns with simple, but effective suggestions and visualizations to help you balance your movements for optimal alignment and fluidity. Video feedback may be used to enhance this process.

Session Themes. Every session of the eleven-session Hellerwork series has a corresponding theme. Each theme is designed to focus on a specific area of the body to facilitate better alignment, flexibility, and balance. The practitioner will work on a specific area and then initiate a conversation with you to bring awareness of certain attitudes associated with that part of your body. For example, the first Hellerwork session focuses on parts of the body that control our ability to expand the chest and breathe deeply—the rib cage and the muscles that attach to it, as well as the arms, shoulders, and hips. The purpose of the first session is to open up your breathing by properly aligning your rib cage over your pelvis. The theme of the first session is Inspiration, because breathing fully and deeply often inspires feelings of energy and aliveness.

Dialogue. The practitioner may ask, “Do you feel inspired? What inspires you? What affects your ability to feel inspired?” Through this process, you may become aware of a lack of inspiration or something that is blocking inspiration in your life. You may even notice a feeling of constriction or tension in the area of your body where inspiration is physically felt. The awareness of this feeling and how it is affecting your body and life is often the first step toward making positive changes for a healthier mind, body, and spirit. In addition to Inspiration, other themes are Standing on your Own Two Feet, Reaching Out, Control and Surrender, The Guts, Holding Back, Losing your Head, The Feminine, The Masculine, Integration, and Coming Out. Although the themes provide a starting point for the dialogue of each session, they are not set in stone. Hellerwork can always be altered or customized by the practitioner according to each individual client’s needs.

Typical responses to Hellerwork include increased relaxation, relief of pain and tension, greater flexibility and range of motion, slightly increased height due to better alignment, a more graceful walk, ease of breathing, and more energy.